My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the experience of heading back to school. But it’s really about what most kids won’t experience when they are in school—any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.
It’s back to school time for kids in our area. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.
But children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health. In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!
The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known and many schools offer breakfast for kids who don’t get it at home. Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.
The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades).
The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!
The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.
Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about healthy lifestyles. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.
Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.
Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?
This isn’t new, of course. I have written about the both the importance of physical activity for growth and learning for children (and adults, too) and the impact of these missed opportunities before. And I’m certainly not the only one to take notice. Probably the most widely known advocate in this area is Jamie Oliver, and his efforts made nutrition and health in schools topics for discussion among parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians alike.
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